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Does Human Resources Create a Grumbly Workforce?

I recently had a conversation with a manager of a mid-sized Technology venture fund about the role of human resources.  He was moderately facetious (I think), when he said that anytime “I see a company with a significant HR function or, god-forbid, a CHRO, I run”.  As a former HR executive, I took the bait and explored why.  My investor colleague felt that HR created work for themselves and, worse, had the tendency to turn normal and healthy manager-employee tensions into Hollywood divorce cases.

It’s a valid point.  Should human resources job responsibilities include acting as an honest broker, in resolving disputes between employee and management or among employees?  This is not an uncommon role for HR.  Many company leaders I have discussed the topic with feel that the HR-as-ombudsman function helps limit legal exposure by catching potentially illegal harassment or discrimination early, provides an early warning system to identify supervisors who may lead to employee turnover and generally maintain a positive workplace.

But, there is another side to having Human Resources fill this mediator role; a side also shared by many company leaders, particularly those driving an entrepreneurial culture:  it damages the employee-manager relationship and encourages – how else to put it –  a grumbly culture.  With HR acting as a go-between, employees justifiably feel that if they are unhappy with management decisions, style or simply want to avoid a difficult conversation with a fellow employee, human resources is the place to go.

Over the years, I have filled business leadership and senior HR roles and frequently observed generalists spending their day listening to employee complaints that do not rise to legal issues: the size of a bonus, raise, cubicle or office, a manager who is brusque or does not provide enough feedback, co-workers who leave dirty dishes in the kitchen, talk too loud, have body odor etc., etc.

Does the potential harm to an organization’s culture and work relationships of having an HR person respond to seemingly trivial issues outweigh the benefits of a release-valve, early warning system?  My answer is a qualified yes.

An ideal HR function should be set up to be alert to and take action on issues that could harm the organization.  This not only include things that could rise to the level of legal action but the more frequent problem of a poorly trained manager who scares away the best talent.  Yet HR should be alert with a clear guideline that its role is to facilitate interaction among colleagues and between manager and employee, not act as a negotiator.

As founder of Cannae, a company that outsources the HR function, I am biased as to how to achieve this balance. Our outsourced approach includes an on-site presence and provides a good backstop for serious concerns raised by employees.  But by not having an HR person on-site 5 x 8, we make it more difficult for employees and HR to fall into a relationship that expects HR to immediately intervene on every difficult workplace interaction.

While not conclusive, it is telling that most formal ombudsman roles can be found in government agencies and academia.

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